Published on October 7, 2014 by Deborah Vlock, Ph.D. in What to Expect When You Get the Unexpected A mother’s notes on childhood mental illness by Deborah Vlock, Ph.D. Talking honestly about teens who take their own lives [This post is “upcycled” from my personal blog, The Striped Nickel. I wrote it in March of 2014, after learning about a string of teen suicides in a neighboring town. The town I live in weathered even more losses to suicide a few years earlier. You’ll notice my tone is more casual than it typically is here, on PsychToday. Never fear–I carefully defused all the F-bombs!] We need to find a better way to talk about teen suicide. Yeah, we. As a culture. As parents. As teachers and grandparents and friends. Believe me, I’ve pondered this topic many, many times. Those of you who are old-time readers of this blog know why. How do you say it right? How do you even know what to say? The first time my younger child uttered those chilling words we all fear and prefer not to repeat in mixed company — the dead words, as I (dis)like to think of them — he was four years old. Yup. Totally impossible…but it happened, then and many times afterwards. You can read about it here. You might not have known that pre-schoolers can yearn after death, just like teenagers and middle-agers and elderly folks. What they can’t easily do, unless they are totally ignored by the adults in their lives, is pull it off. But they can wait for the day they are big enough, or brave enough, to move ahead with it. There are a few reasons I’ve returned to the topic that prompted me to start The Striped Nickel way back in 2011. Not one of them is about my boy, who is now a teen, and who can finally look forward to LIVING his life rather than snuffing it out. YES!!!!! But I’ve been thinking a lot about death these days. Not because I’m depressed (although at least some of the time I am), but because death is all the hell around us. First of all — and this is an old, old story but it always makes me cry — Flanders Field. President Obama was there the other day for a visit. And I was thinking about The Great War and the devastating and beautiful music and poetry that came out of its great brutality and its heaving collective anguish. So that itself made me sad, and then I realized (duh) that WWI ignited one hundred years ago. And that WWII came and went not much later. I’m not saying it’s a BAD thing those days are long past. Quite the opposite. But I spent most of my life up till now in the 20th century. I was born just about two decades after the end of the second world war. And I guess I am just getting old. Then there are all these 21st-century deaths surrounding us. Death by terrorism. Death by rogue airplane. Death by mudslide. Death by fire. Death by water. Oh yeah, and death by totally unnecessary evils, like rampage with easily accessible super-weapons. OK, mini-rant over. This is a really scary, and really hard world we inhabit just now. It always has been, for that matter. But the present brings its own peculiar challenges. And that circles us back to children and suicide. Tonight Saskia and I watched a local television program, Chronicle, about a recent cluster of suicides in a neighboring suburb. It’s a place pretty much like the one we live in. Affluent, pressured. Nice to look at. Generally nice to live in. But these towns can be pretty horrible places in which to attend high school. Our town had ITS cluster of teen suicides between about 2004 and 2008. And these deaths forced a lot of people to think, What the hell is going on in our schools?! But no one seems to have thought hard enough, apparently, because not all that much has changed. Sure, we have great suicide prevention programming in town these days, run by a great team, and we have student activists working tirelessly to promote a healthy school atmosphere. But I hear the talk. I know that kids in our town say things like, “I might as well kill myself if I don’t get into Harvard or Yale.” Or, “I don’t have time for dinner tonight. If I eat I will not finish my homework until 2 a.m., and it’s hard enough to get through the day when I go to bed at the usual time.” (Yes, it was my kid who said that, and the usual time is about 1 a.m.) I know that these high school students have to choose between a little down time after school, a hangout with friends or in front of the TV, maybe some time in the sun, and finishing their CRAZY loads of homework with enough time left over for luxuries. Like food and sleep. I know they stressover what will become of them if they take only two ACCELERATED subjects and the rest merely at HONORS level. And whether not taking as many AP courses as possible will render them unable to attend college and homeless by the time they are thirty. I know this. It is not news to me. And as sad as I am about three beautiful kids recently lost from the town next door, I am not remotely surprised. What DID surprise me was how many people interviewed on Chronicle tonight kind of hefted all the responsibility for these tragedies on the kids who took their own lives. Take a look-see: http://www.wcvb.com/article/three-teen-suicides-rock-newton/8035687 Language like, “That was NOT okay. That was SELFISH. I loved him/her, I miss them, and they made a really bad choice.” Not okay. Bad all around. Agreed! But I’m really not sure suicide is a choice, or that it feels like one to the person who simply cannot figure out a way to keep on living. It is so FIENDISHLY hard to live in this world I almost can’t breathe. And I live in greater Boston, not Syria. You know? I feel RIDICULOUS even saying so, but to me it is true. And to so many others, I assure you. Getting back to the language of blame: Benjy has never been intentionally selfish. He has always loved, and known he is loved back. Yet he has longed, many, many times, to take his own life. He has even, on the darkest of days for both of us, asked me to help him do it. I will never, ever say that Benjy made bad choices, that what he felt was “not OK.” What he felt was unbearable pain and anguish, and it was not a choice. Who would choose to live that way? And why do we dredge up the old, tired, moralistic language to describe death by suicide but not death by somatic illness? Depression is no more a choice than cancer. It is just less quantifiable. Depression, perhaps more than most bodily diseases, is permeable. Shape-shifting. A moving target. It eludes us when we try to contain it. These sad, ill, and now dead teens did not “fail” anyone–but I’ll bet you a lot of people and institutions failed them. What I really wanted to hear from these folks on TV tonight was an acknowledgment that American culture, high-school culture in particular, is not working so well these days. Let’s just talk honestly about this stuff. You know? There’s way too much disingenuous and under-informed talk in this world. Let’s fix that, Readers! Let’s DO IT!